Cradling her precious four-week-old baby boy, Susan Mackenzie stared numbly at her oncologist.
The 37-year-old mother-of-six had just received the most gut-wrenching news – she had breast cancer and it was terminal.
“I stared at her and asked straight out, ‘What are my chances of surviving?’,” Susan tells 7Life of that surreal moment.
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“She just said, ‘It’s not likely, but it’s not completely unheard of’.”
It was February 2023, and Susan – her newborn baby Cooper in her arms – had been given two years to live.
Victorian parents Susan and Ken beam over their six beautiful children – Matthew, nine, Kaiden, seven, Mia, six, Logan, four, Jaxon, three, and Cooper, who is now eight months old.
Despite already having had five kids, it wasn’t until Cooper came along that Susan says she felt “complete”.
But in the Mackenzie household, instead of lively chatter about their busy days, dinner table conversations are now a lot different – and decidedly sombre.
“I want to be open to my kids so they can ask questions about my cancer,” Susan says, adding she never sought to hide the disease from her children.
“I don’t want to tell them at the end (when) they don’t have any time to process what is happening.
“Only the two eldest really understand. They know I am sick.
“Matthew came to me and said, ‘Is Cooper still going to be a baby when you die?’
“That really broke me.”
The mum is acutely aware that every ‘first milestone’ her children achieve might be the last she is able to witness.
But she isn’t living every moment like it’s her last.
In fact, she is on a mission to well outlive her doctor’s bleak prediction.
“I’m not going down without a fight. Hold my beer and watch me,” Susan says.
It was in October 2019 when Susan first noticed a lump in her breast.
“I was pregnant with baby number five and my breasts were sore so I just rubbed them,” she recalls.
Noticing the lump, she headed straight to her GP.
Pregnancy meant she couldn’t undergo scans, so the pair agreed to ‘keep an eye’ on her breasts.
She continually monitored the lump herself and, during midwife appointments, the nurse suggested the lump could potentially be a blocked milk duct.
Susan thought this seemed likely – and she never suspected it could be anything sinister.
But as Christmas flew by, and “the lump got huge”, the mum wanted to investigate.
She opted for a breast biopsy, a procedure safe for her unborn child.
As she waited for the results, Susan, then five months pregnant, recalls seeing a solemn nurse approaching her in the waiting room.
“She came over and said, ‘Do you have a support person with you?’” Susan says.
“I knew it wasn’t good.”
After delivering the breast cancer diagnosis, her oncologist suggested four rounds of chemotherapy, assuring her it would cause no harm to her unborn baby.
But Susan would need a C-section at 36 weeks to ensure the safety of her little boy.
With little option, the mum threw herself into the gruelling treatment – and was gratified to later deliver a healthy baby.
“Everything was fine. Jaxon was born healthy,” she says of the day in October 2020 that he came into the world.
“I had a month break from treatment, so Jaxon was about two-weeks-old and I was straight back into chemo.”
For 12 weeks, Susan underwent further chemotherapy and then six weeks of radiation.
“I didn’t get to enjoy the newborn stage,” Susan says of baby number five.
The treatment was a success and the mum was declared cancer free.
After the good news, she turned to her oncologist and confessed she felt like her family wasn’t whole.
“I wanted more kids, but we waited until after the two-year mark to make sure everything with the cancer was fine,” she explains.
To ensure the disease hadn’t returned, they performed a routine mammogram and nothing was found.
After Susan was given the ‘all clear’, she was over the moon – especially upon discovering she was carrying baby number six.
‘Wasn’t making sense’
But when she was four months pregnant with son Cooper she began feeling a stabbing pain in her ribs.
Midwives moved to reassure her, explaining that her ribs were most likely expanding from her growing belly.
Again, Susan thought this was a plausible explanation – but when the pain persisted she booked to see her oncologist.
Revisiting the mammogram she received just before she fell pregnant, the oncologist assured Susan there was no cancer in her breasts.
Pushing through the pain of childbirth several months later, Susan delivered a very healthy 4.7kg baby.
“I couldn’t believe it. I only put on 1kg in my pregnancy,” she says.
“It just wasn’t making sense.”
Now a mum-of-six, Susan couldn’t shake the feeling that something wasn’t right, so she requested a full body scan.
As doctors explained the results of the black-and-white images, she sat numb and in shock.
“It was everywhere,” Susan says of the cancer – which had spread to her lungs, liver and bones.
“Everywhere but my breasts.”
She was told chemotherapy may temporarily slow the spread of the disease – but, ultimately, doctors believe her time is limited.
“I was just like, ‘I need to be here for my kids, I have a four-week-old’,” she says of her reaction at the time, when doctors suggested a two-year prognosis.
Once again, Susan jumped into treatment, beginning chemotherapy all over.
Even with every last ounce of fight, she knows she is just “borrowing time”.
“Right now the chemo is working. I am stable. But I know it will eventually stop working,” she reveals.
“There will come a time when there is nothing (no treatment options) left for me.
“But I’m not going down without fighting.”
Susan’s family and friends have surrounded her with love as she faces the “life sentence” that she has tried to rebadge as “business as usual”.
“I can’t thank them enough for all their help,” she says, adding that she has also jumped on multiple cancer support groups on Facebook.
“The best piece of advice I saw from there was you can accept your diagnosis, but you don’t have to accept your prognosis,” she says.
“Right now, it’s business as usual.”
Susan is trying to create as many memories as she can with her family – going to the zoo, heading to the movies and taking family photos.
Moments frozen in time for her kids to look back on and remember her.
But she isn’t counting down the clock – she is fighting and won’t give up.
Breast cancer signs
Pink Hope is an Australian not-for-profit which aims to give education about hereditary cancers, including breast and ovarian cancer.
“Knowing the symptoms of breast cancer and doing regular self-examinations, so you can identify any changes, is critical to managing your breast health,” CEO Sarah Powell tells 7Life.
“If you notice a lump in your breast or underarm, a change in size or shape of your breast, nipple discharge or dimpling skin, see your doctor without delay.
“Those with familial/known links to breast cancer, in particular, should ensure they engage in regular breast screening and see their GP to discuss if a referral to a family cancer clinic is necessary.”
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Professional images captured by Emma Fay Photography and published with permission.
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